Shut up and deal: the best of Billy Wilder

The list below would impress you or anyone who loves movies, but I hesitate. I have a problem with Billy Wilder’s lacking the courage to turn his cynicism into something more than an excuse to stick rancid jokes in actors’ mouths, and too often “cynicism” is confused with adulthood when it really means curdled nostalgia: you’re angry because a time you love has passed. There are fewer good films than I thought. As David Thomson once wrote, The Major & the Minor, The Seven-Year Itch, The Spirit of St. Louis, Witness for the Prosecution, Irma la Douce, The Fortune Cookie are grim things to watch on a cold winter’s night. Knowing how to use the camera in an expressive manner would have helped. Does Sunset Boulevard need those heaps of voice-over? What if he and cinematographer John F. Seitz had moved around the damn Norma Desmond estate? To be fair to Wilder’s contemporaries, Preston Sturges wasn’t the most resourceful visual director either, but his scripts allowed a generosity and freedom of movement that Wilder and his co-scenarists Charles Brackett and I.A.L Diamond didn’t permit themselves — the hack Mitchell Leisen understood how to make a cast work like a repertory company, hence the high placement of Midnight, one of my favorite films.

Nevertheless, the list below represents a hell of an achievement in American comedy. It was a pleasure when Miami Beach Cinematheque asked me to introduce Some Like It Hot last year. I have more to say about Wilder here.

1. The Apartment
2. Some Like It Hot
3. Double Indemnity
4. Midnight (writer)
5. Ninotchka (writer)
6. Sunset Boulevard
7. A Foreign Affair
8. Ball of Fire
9. One, Two, Three
10. Sabrina

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